Monday, October 10, 2016

Parallel Universe

Having recently returned from a trip to Peru, I have been captivated with the history and material culture of the Incas.

The Inca civilization developed without any contact with the world outside South  America. They built magnificent and earthquake-proof  structures and fortifications, but their builders did not know how to make an arch. They connected their vast empire with a network of roads and bridges, but they did not invent a wheel (it had almost no use in the mountainous regions of the Andes). Most importantly, they had no writing; their records and history largely depended on an oral tradition.

If the Spanish conquest of the 1530s did not take place, it is likely that the Inca Empire would continue on without these essential (from our Western point of view) cultural accomplishments.  As conquerors of every continent,  we perceive our Western civilization as the only possible alternative to the course of human development. Yet have there been any other alternatives, along the way? What could have possibly happened differently?

I recall the little book of Japanese essayist Junichiro Tanizaki In Praise of Shadows, where he imagined a speculative world evolved from the Japanese point of view:
“Suppose for instance that we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them have taken a different form, would not our myriads of everyday gadgets, our medicines, the products of our industrial art – would they not have suited our national temper better than they do? … The Orient quite conceivably could have opened up the world of technology entirely its own.”

Indeed, contemplating the alternative possibilities for our material universe should be a fascinating subject matter for designers and design students alike. Conceptual speculations of this sort are guaranteed to yield many new discoveries and inventions.